Deep in a Smithsonian vault rests an iconic election poster from the 1980s stored in an archival drawer. It reads: “Silence = Death, VOTE.” It can still shock with its imagery and blunt words. “Your vote is a weapon….we are at war,” the poster states in an historic political call to action for LGBTQ Americans to engage in the most important election of their lives in the midst of a raging epidemic. It was an election as primally important then as the one all Americans face, today.
Despite President Trump’s suggestion that it be postponed, we are have that election, hell or high water, on Nov. 3.
“Silence = Death,” emerging from the pain of the AIDS epidemic, is oddly prophetic for 2020. Engage and fight back or quietly succumb. Intended to rally outrage about the indifference of the federal government to the epidemic of that time, the words called forth three decades of LGBTQ activism that brought unimaginable change. Today, that same challenge faces the whole nation. An epidemic spreads like wildfire. Americans are dying and the White House is indifferent, if not hostile, to the science and medical progress essential to survival.
“Silence = Death” was introduced in 1988 after seven excruciating years of denial of science and public health in favor of silence about the AIDS epidemic by the Reagan administration. Dr. Anthony Fauci had been director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for four years, and had witnessed first-hand the political silence and bumbling that surrounded the epidemic. Five presidencies later, Dr. Fauci recalled the crucial intersection between then and today’s American COVID epidemic challenge: “….it was only when the world realized how the gay community responded to the outbreak with incredible courage and dignity and strength and activism” did the stigma of AIDS diminish and global progress against the epidemic advance.
The Silence = Death “activism that Dr. Fauci praised led to the growth of the self-identified LGBTQ vote that today numbers nine million adults, according to the Williams Institute. These voters developed a new intensity of engagement with politics in the first national presidential election when the major party candidates took clear and differing positions on the issue of LGBTQ rights. It was at the 1992 presidential convention where candidate Patrick Buchanan declared, “There is a religious war going on in the country, it is a cultural war…..We must take back our culture and take back our country!” At Mount Rushmore on July 4th, Trump could not have sounded more like Buchanan: a “left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American revolution…..they would destroy the very civilization.”
The 2020 election demands the same historic courage, dignity, strength and activism Dr. Fauci summoned at the White House coronavirus briefing. Trump is reelected only if Americans don’t vote, if they are silent. LGBTQ, as well as young, Black, brown, seniors, women – all Americans have an extraordinary stake in the outcome of this election. Indeed “Silence = Death” stands as a warning to all Americans who do not use the only true weapon we have, the vote, to fight the epidemic and to keep our precious country and its citizens alive.
Jeff Trammell headed LGBTQ outreach for the Gore and Kerry presidential campaigns. Charles Francis is president of The Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. and served on President George W. Bush’s Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.
When former Vice President Joe Biden announced the historic selection of Sen. Kamala Harris of California as his running mate, he added a candidate to the ticket with a pro-LGBTQ political record that goes back to 2004.
“It’s clear the Biden-Harris ticket marks our nation’s most pro-equality ticket in history,” Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ rights group, said in a statement.
Harris first ran for elected office as San Francisco district attorney in 2004 when LGBTQ rights were firmly established in local law — but still highly contentious nationally.
After winning that election, she established a hate crimes unit to investigate and prosecute anti-LGBTQ violence. In 2006, Harris organized a conference in California that brought together over 100 officials from across the U.S. to discuss strategies to end the use of the so-called gay and transgender panic defense. In 2014, California became the first state to ban the practice in law, and in 2018, Harris and other senators introduced a bill to prohibit the practice nationally.
Harris announced her campaign for California attorney general days after the 2008 passage of Proposition 8, a successful California ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage in the state. While serving as California’s top prosecutor — a job she held for six years — she declined to defend the ban in court. In 2013’s Hollingsworth v. Perry ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 2010 federal court decision invalidating Proposition 8, and gay marriages resumed in the state.
Shortly after it was announced that Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, had chosen Harris as his running mate, Matt Hill, a gay Biden staffer, shared a clip from “The Case Against 8,” a documentary about Proposition 8, showing the moments in 2013 when Harris, then-California’s attorney general, found out about the high court’s decision.
After she was elected to the Senate in 2016, Harris continued to staunchly support LGBTQ rights, frequently co-sponsoring pro-equality legislation and speaking out against the violence faced by transgender women.
After her selection as Biden’s running mate on Tuesday, Harris made immediate waves when she announced her chief of staff would be Karine Jean-Pierre — an out lesbian, a former Obama White House staffer and a spokesperson for the progressive group MoveOn. Jean-Pierre is the first Black person to serve as a chief of staff for a vice presidential candidate.
During the 2020 Democratic primary campaign, where Harris was among the field of presidential hopefuls, her LGBTQ platform stood out for promising to appoint a White House chief advocate for LGBTQ affairs “to ensure that LGBTQ+ Americans are represented in hiring and policy priorities across the government.”
But during the primary, Harris, Biden and over a dozen other Democratic hopefuls were remarkably unified in their positions on many LGBTQ issues, which included ending the transgender military ban and religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws, and reversing policies that discriminate against LGBTQ people in adoption and housing.
The Biden-Harris LGBTQ platform promises to make major changes in areas where LGBTQ people are not fully protected by the law — like housing, military service and health care.
During the Democratic primary, candidates were all unified in their vow to sign the Equality Act, a bill that would update many nondiscrimination laws to explicitly include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
Although Harris has been a staunch LGBTQ supporter since she entered politics in 2004, Biden, like nearly all American politicians at that time, did not support LGBTQ rights when elected to the Senate in 1972 the way he does today. Biden, along with the vast majority of the Senate, voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, which defined marriage in federal law as a union between one man and one woman, but by the 2010s his views had changed.
Most famously, while serving as vice president, Biden in May 2012 pre-empted the Obama administration’s official policy in support of same-sex marriage by endorsing the unions during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying one another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties,” Biden said at the time.
Three days later, President Barack Obama endorsed same-sex marriage.
An ‘incredibly meaningful’ pick
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., called Harris “well qualified and well prepared” to be vice president.
Takano, who is gay, said her selection is “incredibly meaningful to the LGBTQ community, and as a Japanese American I am also proud to have someone of Asian heritage on the ticket.”
“Senator Kamala Harris is revered in the LGBTQ community for her leadership as Attorney General during the litigation of Proposition 8 and her fervent refusal to defend an unjust law,” he said in an email. “Joe Biden selecting her as his running mate reflects the deep value that both candidates share regarding equality for LGBTQ people.”
Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay former presidential hopeful who frequently campaigned on his experience as a mayor and gay man in “Mike Pence’s Indiana,” tweeted, “It feels good to visualize the moment when Vice President Mike Pence is replaced by Vice President Kamala Harris.”
Pence and Harris have starkly different track records when it comes to LGBTQ rights, with Pence, the former Indiana governor, having signed the 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was controversial for protecting anti-LGBTQ discrimination. The two are set to debate on Oct. 7.
Speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the first Black woman and first lesbian to be mayor of that city, said there’s “a tremendous level of excitement” around the selection of Harris.
“This has been a very, very difficult time for people around the country, and we need something to rally around, and I think her addition to the ticket really gives people that thread of hope that we have all been looking for,” Lightfoot said, adding that her 12-year-old daughter was “beside herself with joy.”
Not everyone across the LGBTQ spectrum, however, is applauding Biden’s choice of Harris.
Ashlee Marie Preston, a Black trans advocate who supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts during the primaries, said many Democrats like her “are experiencing a flux of emotions right now” because of their view that Biden and Harris represent the “tough on crime” culture, which Preston described as particularly harmful to transgender people of color, who according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey are likelier to experience police harassment, incarceration and abuse while in detention.
“This won’t be a cake walk for them,” Preston said. “We need to see that their loyalty to systems that crush vulnerable communities has been dissolved. Politicians can change, as can their policies. But we’re still waiting on proof of such evolution, or at least a straightforward conversation on the matter.”
The Trump administration has proposed a new regulation that would gut the asylum laws in the United States; excluding those who are applying because of the violence they face as LGBTQIA+ people, survivors of domestic violence, and many others. Even as a relatively recent resident of the United States, this goes against the very values I came to this country to experience.
I am a 26 year-old lesbian woman and a citizen of a county in Central Asia — a country with zero tolerance of LGBTQIA+ people and with a strong patriarchal culture. I am here in the United States as an asylum seeker because my country refused to accept me and threatened me with violence if I didn’t change, which is impossible.
The proposed new rule may block me from getting the asylum protection I need, and force me to return to a country where my life is in danger.
As a child, I was abused by my parents due to the fact that I was “different” — non-conforming to cultural and religious expectations. This included sending me to physically and mentally abusive “religious” retreats to rid me of the “evil” inside of me. As a teenager, I was threatened by the police and forced to pay them a bribe when they found me in a car with a female classmate. Into my adult years, I was forced to endure a severely physically, sexually and emotionally abusive relationship with a man who coerced me into a relationship with him by threatening to reveal my sexual orientation to others, including my parents.
If I were to return to my home country, I believe I would continue to be subject to violence from my family and a forced marriage. I would not be able to have relationships with other women or even wear short hair and unisex clothing, because to do so would put me at risk of violence from my family and the public. Similarly, I would not be able to continue my activism without threat of violence from ultra-right groups. The only way to guarantee my survival in my home country would be to change my appearance, stop participating in feminist and LGBTQ activism, and live as a lesbian secretly. The years I spent doing this before coming to the United States made me deeply depressed and suicidal.
The government of the country where gay marriage is legal in all of its 50 states should know how important it is to have the basic freedom to love anybody you want. The years of LGBTQIA+ activism and struggle that won those freedoms for Americans make it clear how tough it is to gain that freedom, without getting abused or killed.
Humanity is when people take care of each other globally. Humanity is when one country opens its doors to suffering people from other countries. While the commenting period is closed for the rule that would affect LGBTQ+ asylum seekers, the government is still collecting public comments for another asylum rule that would affect all asylum seekers — trying to use public health as an excuse to keep others out. The LGBTQ+ community knows too well how governments can weaponize health to discriminate against us. It’s not too late to speak out against this rule, and to make the United States a safe place for everyone.
In 1985, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo urged the public to have safe sex by using condoms to help stop the spread of AIDS. Condoms were the face masks of the 1980s.
Some people wanted to use them during sex, some did not; many who chose the latter, including myself, suffered the consequences. In 1986, I decided to ignore Cuomo and every medical expert — and became infected with HIV.
Today we are once again in the middle of a war being waged between these two camps, personal freedom and staying alive. Too many people still don’t seem to accept that if they are fighting for the right to not wear a mask, it will very likely come at the price of their life or that of someone they love. The power of free choice can kill you.
I also know the feelings of regret, anger and guilt that come with the decision to value free choice above all else.
But the allure of that power is, well, powerful. As clinical psychologist Steven Taylor, author of “The Psychology of Pandemics,” recently noted, people do not like to be told what to do even if the measures could protect them.
“People value their freedoms,” Taylor told CNN. “They may become distressed or indignant or morally outraged when people are trying to encroach on their freedoms.”
I know this to be true firsthand. But I also know the feelings of regret, anger and guilt that come with the decision to value free choice above all else. I hope that by sharing the story of the mistake I made in similar circumstances, some who scorn the idea of wearing a mask — whether it’s because they don’t want to look “silly” with it on or because they are “a real American” — can see that these desires are in no way worth killing yourself or others over.
My life-altering error in judgment happened the first night I was with my then-boyfriend, Jason, who’d told me he’d “been tested and was fine.” So I disregarded the warnings and the facts, along with that little voice in my head telling me to reach for the condom that was in my pocket. I had unprotected sex with Jason that night and for the next two months that we dated, even though it was 1986 and the height of the AIDS crisis. The euphoric feeling of having someone desire me was powerful and gave me a naive feeling of invincibility.
After the relationship ended, I refused to have unprotected sex with anyone else. I will not become a victim of this disease, I told myself. But it was too late. Two years after we’d broken up, when I went to visit him in the AIDS ward of St. Luke’s Hospital, Jason told me he had been tested for the first time eight months ago, when he started getting sick.
I wanted to scream at him or strike him, but he looked so frail; virtually unrecognizable as the man I had dated, he was withered and shriveled, his skin covered in purple sores. So I said nothing to him, though I knew his deceit was going to cost me my life.
But I spent years after that telling myself that Jason and his lie were the sole reason for my getting infected. It wasn’t until this April, when the mask debate began, that I realized I, too, was responsible for my infection. As I questioned how people could brazenly refuse to take accountability for their own health and not wear a mask in public, I realized I had done the same thing and put my own life in danger.
Within a decade of my diagnosis, my immune system was so compromised that my doctor told me to let my family know I was going to die. But luckily, at the end of that year I was put in a drug trial for a new class of drugs called protease inhibitors, which allowed me to survive.
The decision I made to not use a condom has led to irrevocable damage to my immune system and my life. For 32 years, I’ve lived in fear of germs and catching the flu or even a cold. Every cough that lingers too long sends my thoughts spiraling: Is this the beginning of the end? When the coronavirus was first being discussed seriously in this country, the most vulnerable were people over 50 with pre-existing conditions. I’m a 56-year-old HIV-positive man. It paralyzed me.
It also felt very familiar. Both of these epidemics are rampant viruses that have no cure, both have stumped global scientists and, just as at the height of the AIDS crisis, countless people are dying every day.
A glaring difference is that AIDS was labeled a “gay disease,” even though it afflicted heterosexuals as well. That misnomer allowed the Republican government and most of society in the ’80s to look away and pretend it wasn’t happening. Yet there is a parallel in this, as well: Once again, the Republican government is denying the severity of this pandemic, distorting statistics and the effectiveness of face coverings and otherwise not showing leadership or seriousness in tackling this deadly disease.
What I see now when I come across people not wearing masks is familiar, too — a familiar stupidity. Witnessing the actions of these arbiters of freedom, I do not see patriots. I see people cloaking themselves in the rhetoric of “civil rights” and the idea of a “free country“ who don’t understand the awesome personal and communal responsibility that free choice carries with it. I see people who are making the same error I made 34 years ago when I ignored all of the warnings, all of the news and all of the numbers.
As with having HIV, once you become a carrier of this virus, it is not only your own life you’re playing with. Both illnesses have periods of latency where someone can spread the virus before knowing they have it. So even if you feel that you have the right not to wear a mask, since you’ll be paying the consequences of that choice personally, do you feel you also have the right to kill someone else because you don’t want to cover up?
Too many people still don’t seem to accept that if they are fighting for the right to not wear a mask, it will very likely come at the price of their life or that of someone they love.
In times like these, there is no denying that white supremacy, racism, and criminalization put Black, Brown and transgender people at severe risk of violence. The COVID-19 outbreak has disproportionately impacted Black and Brown people. Counties with higher populations of Black residents accounting for 52 percent of coronavirus diagnoses and 58 percent of coronavirus deaths nationally, according to a recent amfAR study.
And, following the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement has once again demanded an end to the systemic inequalities and senseless violence against Black people by law enforcement.
The life-or-death impact of hate and discrimination doesn’t stop there. When it comes to sex workers in the U.S. and around the globe, many of whom are Black, Brown and transgender, discrimination and criminalization of sex work have put them at a high risk of violence, contracting preventable diseases like COVID-19 and HIV, and have exposed them to police brutality. Yet the U.S. continues to weaponize life-saving global AIDS assistance programs against sex workers by demanding recipients of PEPFAR funding to officially adopt a position opposing prostitution and acquiesce to the U.S. conflation of sex work and trafficking.
The Supreme Court has just ruled in favor of the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath (APLO), a provision in the 2003 United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act, that required all recipients of funding through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to “have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution.” The policy goes on to conflate consensual sex work with human trafficking, and refuses funds to non-U.S.-based organizations that do not have a policy explicitly opposing “prostitution and sex trafficking.” While a prior 2013 decision ruled that the APLO is unconstitutional as applied to U.S.-based organizations, Monday’s ruling declined to extend those protections to their foreign affiliates, a ruling that will further divide and hamper the global AIDS response.
The APLO is and always has been a bad policy. There is no evidence that the policy improves health outcomes. In fact, there is evidence that it hurts them.
Since the policy’s inception 17 years ago, the provision has done nothing to advance its stated goals of defeating HIV and AIDS and the trafficking of persons.
This is despite the consistent and vocal leadership of members like Rep. Barbara Lee, who have consistently fought the dangerous, counterproductive, and inefficient aid conditionality of the APLO.
Whereas there is no evidence that proclaiming opposition to sex work is an effective public health intervention, there is evidence that decriminalization of sex work would have an astounding impact on reducing the HIV epidemic, averting between 33-46 percent of new infections over a decade. Yet the APLO directly blocks organizations from halting the spread of HIV.
Sex workers are disproportionately impacted by HIV and AIDS globally. Halting the spread of HIV simply cannot happen without trusted engagement and leadership from sex workers. Over the past 17 years, the policy has promoted stigma and discrimination of sex workers. It oftentimes blocks sex workers from engaging in the design, development, implementation, and assessment of HIV and AIDS programs and services. HIV prevention and treatment programs are more successful when they include sex workers involvement and leadership. For some organizations around the world, working with sex workers while declaring opposition to sex work feels hypocritical. It was for these reasons that Brazil rejected $40 million in U.S. global AIDS money in 2005, noting that such restrictions undermined the very programs responsible for Brazil’s success in reducing the spread of HIV.
International health and development agencies including UNAIDS, UNFPA, UNDP, the WHO, and the World Bank have recognized the role that decriminalization of sex work plays in advancing public health outcomes while also advancing the human rights of sex workers.
In conclusion, APLO is a punitive rule that makes it difficult for sex workers to access comprehensive, accessible and affordable health care. But everyone deserves access to quality care. Social stigmas that disproportionately impact and undermine the sexual and reproductive health rights of people across the globe do not belong in our nation’s foreign aid programs, and nothing should change that.
Serra Sippel is president the Center for Health and Gender Equity.
The very act of being a Queer person is radical. Who we love and who we have sex with are acts of political defiance. Being visible, being proud, refusing to hide who we are: These are rejections of tyranny, and Pride Month is an opportunity to celebrate that.
Being LGBTQ also means freedom — to define for myself how relationships will look. There is strength there, and Pride is about these things, too.
We didn’t want our relationship to feel like a trap. We both wanted to be free to explore and to experience new things, and didn’t want to limit each other.
So June is the ideal time to make the case for open relationships and to discuss how my partner, Layne, and I have benefited from our recent decision to open up.
When you live as an outsider, there is an opportunity to question the rules of the society you are living in. If who I am is viewed as wrong, or flawed, then why should I conform? Since LGBTQ people as a community have always been on the outside, there has been a long history of questioning how we approach love and sex and relationships. Layne and I decided we didn’t want the rules we followed to be outdated heteronormative ideas.
We each want the other to have the chance to live his life as big as possible. We had discussed the idea of having a nonmonogamous relationship many times over the course of our two years together before giving it a shot this year (though we’re currently taking a hiatus in order to social distance during COVID-19). Neither of us wanted to feel like we were being forced into some societal definition of how a relationship should look and work.
The decision to open up had nothing to do with our sex life or the depth of our feelings for each other. It didn’t mean something was missing in our relationship. But it did mean we didn’t want our relationship to feel like a trap. We both wanted to be free to explore and to experience new things and didn’t want to limit each other.
It’s not that I feel that monogamy is wrong or inherently flawed; it’s the idea that monogamy is the only way to have a strong and viable relationship that I reject. Indeed, the idea that monogamy is the only path to a healthy relationship is ridiculous. The argument could be made that monogamy creates resentment, that it’s why people lie and cheat on each other. Monogamy is fine if that’s what works for you. But it isn’t what works for me — and that’s fine as well.
At the same time, just because I believe in open, nonmonogamous and poly relationships doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with them, with jealousy and insecurity and doubt. It hasn’t always been easy. I can be petty. I often refer to myself as a cave man. Belief and practice aren’t always seamless. Ultimately, my fears come down to the same thing: What if I’m not good enough, sexy enough, worthy of love? And what if that means I end up alone, abandoned, with no one?
This raises the obvious question: If it’s so hard and threatening and scary, is it worth it? The answer is, absolutely, yes. Even when it feels impossibly hard, it is worth it. It can be scary and threatening. But I don’t want to let fear define how I love my partner or how I live my life.
I think it’s common to fall in love with someone and then try to make that person conform to our needs, but in doing this we are actually killing the very thing we found so attractive in the first place. The person we fell in love with is this whole, separate, living human being. I didn’t want to change Layne. Instead, I wanted to encourage him to be the man I met, to keep growing. I fell in love with Layne because of his independence.
What being in a nonmonogamous relationship has taught me is that I can’t be, nor do I want to be, everything for my partner. Once I became willing to think differently, I began to question many of the rules of relationships and the best ways to support my partner.
Do we want to live together or do we choose to maintain separate households? How do we approach our finances? How do we set our goals as individuals and as a couple? Where do we see ourselves in the future?
The very act of rethinking assumptions about relationships has opened up a space for Layne and me to really question our choices and desires and what we each want and need from the other.
At the end of the day, I get to be with the man I love. I’m excited for our journey and I’m excited that I get to grow with him and explore new boundaries. I get to witness my partner as he grows, to see the man he will become.
And I am excited to see who I will become. I know that I have his support and love, that he is encouraging me just as I am encouraging him.
“Sometimes small gestures can have unexpected consequences. Major initiatives practically guarantee them.” Reads the first lines of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the ban on discrimination that protects gay, lesbian and transgender employees. There is no doubt that this decision opens up the legal system for a new era of trans rights. However, two years ago in Latin America a major initiative undertaken by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights passed almost unnoticed. More than unexpected consequences, that 2018 ruling is showing today its consequent and symbolic impact.
It may be seen as a small gesture in a region where some advocates claim that the life expectancy of trans women is less than half than of the rest of the population. But in that 2018 ruling the Inter-American Court of Human Rights banned all forms of discrimination on grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation. Deriving its power as the final interpreter of the meaning of the American Convention on Human Rights, the court has its seat in a quiet suburb of Costa Rica’s capital, San José. The ruling is binding in over 20 Latin American countries that fall under the court’s jurisdiction. The gesture is small. The consequences deriving from it, increasingly, are not.
On trans rights, the terrain in Latin American seems even trickier. In the most violent region of the world, trans individuals are disproportionality affected. Violence has its seeds in a culture of widespread discrimination against non-binary individuals. Civil society organizations claim that only one in two trans persons have access to health care. Institutional policies are also rooted in hetero-cis-normative paradigms. The Inter-American Court’s decision challenged that institutionalized discrimination. Altogether with a ruling on a general ban against discrimination on grounds of gender identity, it also focused on the right to identity. The court’s groundbreaking decision considered that trans individuals have the right to have their gender identity officially recognized as they perceive it. In practice, it means that Latin American states have the obligation to update their documents without any invasive procedures, such as a probe of medical treatment, clinical tests or a physician’s certification. The only important requirement is that the official documents mirror the person’s self-perceived identity. Under the sponsorship of the Organization of American States (OAS), the umbrella organization under which the Inter-American Court was created, civil registries all around the region are working on adopting its practices and legislation to comply with the court’s mandate.
These are reasons to be optimistic. Still, there are reasons to be cautious. The political context in Latin American is as complex as in the U.S. today. All major initiatives always will still require many more small gestures. At least this time, the law is on the right side of history.
Beginning today, June 1, we mark LGBTQ+ Pride month in Marin County and globally. It is a critical time to recall the origins of the movement for our hard fought rights – a movement that has achieved massive advances for our community, but which still has far to go. We have achieved things it was difficult to imagine just two decades ago: the ability to marry whomever we love, much broader public support for the idea that LGBTQ+ people deserve equal rights and dignity, and representation of our stories and identities in the media. But we still lack basic protections against discrimination in housing and employment at the federal level, and the Electoral College chose a president who regularly wages attacks on LGBTQ+ people.
The movement for LGBTQ+ civil rights was definitively sparked with a furious riot at the Stonewall Inn. Led by Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson and Latinx trans activist Sylvia Rivera, the Stonewall Riotfollowed major demonstrations at the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles, and Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco where transgender activists of color stood on the front lines against police harassment and violence. Queer and trans people of color have stood up time and time again for our community to say: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! We now see queer Black activists responding to the state of emergency that has resulted from countless murders of Black people across the country and the world. Two out of the three founders of Black Lives Matter, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Alicia Garza, are queer. Protests – even riots – have been an effective tool in enacting real change.
The first Pride events in the country were actually protests. In recent years, they have looked more like wild parties. But underneath, they are critical tools in our efforts to achieve our full civil rights agenda. As friends at Equality California said so well in a communication today, “Pride is Protest!” How, then, should we think of Pride this year? This month? And this day? A celebration? No. Time for reflection and action, yes! No one is truly free until ALL of us are free and valued and live with dignity and respect. Although the initial fights for LGBTQ+ rights were fought by trans activists of color, they are still the ones experiencing major discrimination and bias. LGBTQ+ people of color have called attention to racism and rejection that exists within our OWN community – and their righteous calls for greater inclusion have often been met with deaf ears. This is unacceptable.
What does this mean for The Spahr Center? We recognize that we have work to do to better serve queer and trans people of color in Marin, and to fight for the well-being of ALL LGBTQ+ people in the county. In 2017, Marin County was named the most racially inequitable county in California. We know that a majority of the clients served in our LGBTQ+ programs are white, and only our HIV program mirrors the county’s diversity. We are committed to prioritizing racial equity in our work moving forward. Here are some initial steps we are taking:
We are reaching out to organizations across the county learning how we can better serve communities of color and be in solidarity with their work;
We are launching a summer social justice fellowship for LGBTQ+ young people to learn about the intersectional nature of oppression and take action to make change in Marin;
We are prioritizing hiring therapists of color and seeking a bilingual Spanish-speaking therapist; and
We are planning a town hall with partners in the County to discuss the intersection of racism, homophobia and transphobia.
We urge our community, especially our White community members, to join us in this work. It is our duty to take action to protect Black lives and dismantle the structures that oppress people of color.
As Marsha P. Johnson said, “No Pride for some of us, without liberation for all of us!
The law often operates as the apparatus that facilitates instead of prevents the untimely deaths of so many in historically excluded and oppressed communities – including the LGBTQ community. The deaths of both Aimee Stephens and Don Zarda, whose workplace discrimination cases the Supreme Court decided posthumously in their favor on Monday, are a case in point. Aimee, who died of complications related to kidney disease just weeks ago and Don, who died in an accident, did not live to see the outcome of their cases, in which the highest court ruled that their livelihoods — and, thus, in America today, their health insurance — shouldn’t be predicated on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
So after living for decades under a patchwork of state and local laws and lower court opinions, the entire country now has protections against discrimination at work if they are LGBTQ. For me, it was a galvanizing reminder of how sometimes advocates can still find hope in our work despite the compromises inherent to the law, and be reinvigorated for and invested in the transformative work for justice that lies again.
Decades of work — in the streets, in legislatures and in the courts — went into the simple, clear, unequivocal ruling by the court that, yes, it is illegal to fire or otherwise discriminate against someone for being LGBTQ, which was written by Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s four liberals.
The entire architecture of the Trump administration’s explicit attacks on LGBTQ people came crumbling down in an instant — an instant built on the lives and labor of so many advocates leading up to the breathtaking win.
Nothing happens in law without the resistance and organizing of people in the streets, in their homes and families, in their schools and communities, within prisons and jails, and at workplaces. Monday’s decision, for example, came one day after more than 15,000 people gathered in Brooklyn to rally for Black Trans Lives, and less than two weeks after hundreds marked the beginning of Pride and the Black Lives Matter movement by gathering at New York City’s Stonewall Inn to call for justice for Nina Pop, a Black trans woman, and Tony McDade, a Black trans man killed by police. It also came the same week that Riah Milton was killed in Ohio and the remains of Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells were found in Philadelphia — both Black trans women.
And just last Friday, the Trump administration rushed out a rule designed to allow discrimination in health care settings against trans people under the Affordable Care Act. The entire 336-page rule — which read much like author J.K. Rowling’s now-infamous anti-trans screed — was premised on a notion of sex discrimination that the Supreme Court has now wholly rejected; Monday’s decision should essentially nullify the rule entirely as being outside the agency’s authority.
Whether they like it or not, the Trump administration is not the final word on the meaning or scope of federal statutes that prohibit discrimination because of sex: the Supreme Court is and they have spoken. Thus, the many actions that the Trump administration has taken to systemically attack LGBTQ people — particularly trans youth — are completely neutralized. From efforts to target trans youth in schools, to those designed to push trans people out of homeless shelters, to those intended to deny us health care, every single one of the Trump administration’s anti-trans policy actions are now likely as legally enforceable as Rowling’s anti-trans ponderings.
The sweeping victory for LGBTQ workers is a moment of hope that feels particularly meaningful in the context of the widespread organizing and resistance to anti-Black state violence, as well as the widespread mobilizing in defense of Black trans lives. We won this case because so many Black and Brown people fought and died to give us the chance to demand justice before the highest court in the United States and from each other as Americans.
But in the same day that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of LGBTQ workers, it rejected cases that would have evaluated the legal doctrine of qualified immunity that effectively allows police to act with impunity and, in the coming weeks, the court may issue harmful decisions on the law allowing undocumented people brought to the U.S. as children to remain here legally (known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and abortion and contraception. All of these will have disproportionately negative effects on communities of color; in fact, the qualified immunity doctrine is largely understood as a product of white supremacy and central to the culture of impunity that allows the police to get away with disproportionate acts of violence against Black and Brown people.
The future, then, will be a test of how we build on this victory together. Employment protections are crucial but only the beginning, because ours is not a call for equality but for justice. And justice means showing up for the unhoused, the undocumented, the incarcerated, and the ill. Without decriminalization of sex work, without an end to discrimination based on past criminal conviction, without defunding the police, and without reinstating and greatly expanding DACA, Monday’s win will be hollow. The work for, as the pledge our children recite in school (often in violation of the First Amendment) promises, “justice for all” continues — and, in this moment of great transformation, a new kind of work begins.
Last June, it felt as if the entire world was converging on New York City’s West Village to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, rebranded as World Pride. Around 5 million people from all over the globe descended upon the Big Apple in what was the largest LGBTQ gathering of its kind, and the city’s streets were literally paved with Pride.
Storefronts and bars and signposts were festooned with corporate-sponsored rainbow flags, balloons, boas, paint, tinsel and posters — you name it, and there was a rainbow flag and the logo of some corporate sponsor on it. Seemingly every company was hocking LGBTQ Pride merch, no matter their history of discrimination against us or whether their C-suite was comprised of Trump’s biggest donors.
It might have appeared as if we and our allies were all wrapped in a big, colorful, feathery collective embrace as we partied together, paraded together, wore our queer positive T-shirts and hats together, reveling in the fact that what few civil rights we LGTBQ people had were still tenuously intact.
But there was something a bit disingenuous about a big tent, corporatized, police-guarded celebration that, despite the queer and independent media’s best efforts, had all but forgotten the real story behind the festivities: that the LGBTQ liberation movement we celebrate with Pride began with a fight against police brutality.
Stonewall began because, night after night, cops had been raiding our bars, arresting gay men, lesbians, gender nonbinary people and transgender people, loading us into patrol wagons and carting us off to jail for living our authentic lives in relatively private spaces.
So when, at 1:20 a.m. on June 28, 1969, as the New York City Police Department raided the Stonewall Inn — handcuffing people and loading them into police vehicles — Stormé DeLarverie, who had been hit on the head by a cop with a baton when she complained her handcuffs were too tight, urged the crowd of onlookers to “do something,” they did.
Stormé — a Black, self-identified “stone butch” lesbian and celebrated drag performer — is said to have thrown the first punch. And the Stonewall riots (they didn’t refer to them as protests then, either) lasted six days. They weren’t the first uprisings for LGBTQ liberation, but they were the largest at the time.
And now, one year after the milestone anniversary of that history-changing rebellion against police brutality, many LGBTQ people have been protesting against police brutality in the names of (only most recently) George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade, a Black trans man fatally shot by police in Tallahassee, Florida.
We did so while our communities are all still in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic — a deadly disease the government ignored for too long being familiar territory to the older among us — flinging open our doors and putting on our masks, some of us for the first time since the stay-at-home orders were issued in New York City in mid-March, to march as part of or alongside Black Lives Matter.
We were all risking our lives not only by marching in close contact with others in the midst of a pandemic, but we were facing off cops — many of them not wearing masks — who were armed to the teeth with the familiar batons, and now rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and military-grade weapons and vehicles.
And, not surprisingly, the cops were still raiding our community’s bars and hurting peaceful protesters. On May 30 in Raleigh, North Carolina, police opened fire with “less lethal rounds” outside Ruby Deluxe, a gay bar, because owner Tim Lemuel and some friends were setting up a first-aid station for protesters. On June 1, cops in full riot gear raided Blazing Saddles gay bar in Des Moines, Iowa, for the same reason: providing first-aid for demonstrators. They arrested three people, who were cuffed face down on the sidewalk, and then spent over two hours waiting to be processed in jail and two more hours in jail after they’d been bailed out, according to the bar’s Facebook page.
In New York City on June 2, LGBTQ activists held a rally in front of the Stonewall Inn to protest the murders of Black trans people. As the rally was wrapping up — just moments after the city-imposed 8 p.m. curfew — NYPD officers beat and arrested activists in attendance, including City Council candidate and drag performer Marti Gould Cummings and activist Jason Rosenberg, who was beaten bloody and denied medical attention. He wound up with a broken arm and six stitches on his head for the “crime” of linking arms with other activists.
That’s only a small sampling of the apparently vengeful violence cops around the country exacted on protesters of police brutality. Journalists reporting on the rallies and marches have been shot at close range with rubber bullets, many more activists have been beaten with batons, run down by police cars, tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed, shoved backward to the ground courting head injuries and put in jail without masks and in close quarters for hours on end.
There have been protests in big cities and in small towns in states you’d least expect — Idaho, who knew — and in countries acrossthree continents. Not only has the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd been charged with second-degree murder, but Minneapolis has committed to dismantling its police department; New York has vowed to outlaw chokeholds, like the one that killed Eric Garner, provide more transparency about police misconduct and reform the NYPD; and Confederate statues in Virginia and Alabama have been toppled. The protests have also led to a surge of registered voters … and Trump has never been more unpopular.
And that’s just in the first two weeks of this ever-growing movement to combat police brutality. The month is young. Imagine what more we can do as we all continue to march and protest to reform the criminal justice system to finally protect us all. That, rather than corporate sponsorship of a rainbow-hued parade, would most definitely be something to take pride in and celebrate — masked, and 6 feet apart, of course.